Reading: Revelation 21
Most of Revelation can be described as events that happened in the late first century and, when I read Revelation, I strongly prefer that description. I really do like reading commentaries that suggest what item of late 1st Century history is described. The last couple of chapters cannot be described that way. Revelation 21 begins with the New Heaven and the New Earth, established, replacing the old ones that had `passed away.’
There are many things that I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that the world I live in has not yet passed away. I look around, and I can see that this isn’t exactly heaven — there is still something that we are looking forward to. The last chapters of Revelation are full of promise, they describe the hope that we have.
We have always looked forward to the promise of heaven, but oddly, our vision of heaven is imperfect. When hear people trying to describe heaven, it does not sound that interesting. When I read Dante’s Divine Comedy, his “Inferno” was engaging and memorable, but “Paradisio” was more than a little dull. I have, like everybody before me, great difficulty figuring out what to say about heaven.
I love the book Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, but there is no similar book that shows a discussion of the politics of heaven working to save souls. In the introduction of Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis observes:
Ideally, Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood should have been balanced by archangelical advice to the patient’s guardian angel. Without this the picture of human life is lopsided. But who could supply the deficiency? Even if a man — and he would have to be a far better man than I — could scale the spiritual heights required, what “answerable style” could he use? For the style would really be part of the content. Mere advice would be no good; every sentence would have to smell of Heaven.
I find myself in exactly the same position as C.S. Lewis, and Dante, and everybody who tries to speak of heaven; I do not have the words, I do not have the style that breathes of heaven. As much as I strive to be a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, it is a place that I have never seen. Remember, when the Hebrews left slavery in Egypt for the promised land, they didn’t even want to finish the journey, because they could not imagine what it was like to be free.
Revelation 21 promises us that “Death will be no more; mourning and pain will be no more.” this is a great promise, and guess that it gave those who were facing persecution and death hope that they had something to look forward to beyond the utter powerlessness that they faced in life; but I also know that I live in a world where tears are very real. I know that death seems very close, and I know that my something in my soul cries rejecting it.
Right now, it seems that the whole world is in tears. I hear about one disaster after another. I hear about those who died in Mexico from the earthquakes, I hear about those who died in hospitals and nursing homes that lost power in Florida and Puerto Rico, I hear about people who are still homeless in Texas, and I expect that I’ll be hearing about disasters and suffering for some time to come.
As you know, the pastor of Valley Mills Friends recently learned she has terminal cancer, and she is currently in hospice care. Karla and I visited her yesterday; we’ve seen her several times since we learned of her condition. What you might not know is that when she was healthy, we’d meet for dinner most months. She was an ally to Iglesia Amigos, and was a big part of the vision for Valley Mills to host a Hispanic ministry. Marilee Gabriel is our friend.
I know every one of you has watched a loved one die; I know that Raysville Friends has a long history of funerals. I know that all of you know the basic truth that when things hurt, the right answers don’t make the pain go away. I know faith helps — but when we are not yet in the place where mourning, crying, and pain are no more. Mourning, crying, and pain is very much a part of the world we live in, and I am aware of this fact.
I also know that faith means that my grandfather was not afraid to face death. After he went to too many funerals, including his siblings, his wife, his son, his cousins, he was ready to go to his own; and while he wasn’t exactly praying for death to come quickly, he did make it clear that he was looking forward to being reunited with so many people he loved, soon. Knowing this did not make it easier to bury him. Mourning is something that must happen.
We must not mistake mourning and tears for a lack of faith. It is very hard to say goodbye, even if it only for a time. It is very frightening to face a major change, even if we trust the one who said that He goes to prepare a place. C.S. Lewis wrote two books that deal with theology, pain and loss. The first book he wrote was titled The problem with pain where he answered questions like: “Why do bad things happen to good people? If God is good, why is there so much suffering?” When his wife died, Lewis wrote A grief observed where he shared his pain, his doubts, his despair; and how little comfort he received when he was given answers. He had already written a book filled with all the answers anybody could ever want, and then he found answers do nothing to cure a broken heart. There is no shortcut to mourning; not even the promise of a place where the cause of mourning ceases.
I think that mourning is one of the best proofs I have of heaven. There is something in the human spirit that rejects death. We not only have the promise of a place without death, suffering, and mourning, but we mourn as if death is a surprise to us. Nature shows us that every creature dies; yet there is something deep inside us that rejects every death. We seem to instinctively know that there shouldn’t be a place for death. Even after experience with death, we are ill suited for it; we continue to mourn.
We are given a promise that our hearts long for; but the promise that somewhere there will be a kingdom where these terrible things that our hearts reject as wrong does not change the fact that we don’t live there yet. We live in a world where pain, suffering, and death happen every day, and far too often they are happening in a way that touches us personally. I look forward to the promise I read, the promise that there will be no more mourning — but, for today, I see death and suffering; and I mourn.